Helping Children Through Culture Shock

By Carrie Jones, LCSW

Children arrive in Shanghai with all kinds of attitudes, outlooks, and expectations. Some see it as the beginning of a whirlwind adventure. Others are more reluctant about, or even flat out resistant, to the new experience. Regardless of their initial feelings about the move here though, at some point, almost every child will experience some degree of culture shock.

Many times parents feel helpless and even start to question whether the move was a mistake. It isn’t easy to see your child unhappy and to watch him or her struggle, and many parents also arrive over here with mixed feelings, complicating the issue. It can be reassuring to know that, for the most part, what your child is experiencing is normal and even healthy, all a part of the process of adjusting. While the journey through culture shock is unique for each child and family, here are some stages most children (and adults too!) will pass through:

The Honeymoon Stage: When you first arrive, the differences seem intriguing, mysterious, and fascinating. Kids feel excited, stimulated, and curious.

The Distress Stage: The novelty starts to wear off and children may feel confused, inadequate, or isolated as they try to adjust to their new life here. This can take a toll on them physically, emotionally, and mentally.

The Adaptation and Adjustment Stage: Kids begin to accept the differences and similarities between the new culture and their home culture and start to feel more relaxed, confident, and even like an “old hand” as they get used to life here and learn how to cope with the challenges and experience success. Life becomes much more enjoyable for the entire family.

It is important for parents to understand and accept that kids may not progress through these stages sequentially or according to any set time standards. Sometimes they’ll be moving along, adjusting at a steady pace, and then suddenly something happens that sends them right back to the start. Maybe a special holiday or occasion is approaching and they are overwhelmed with homesickness and a desire to celebrate back home with the usual traditions and family and friends. Suddenly, they experience the distress stage all over again.  Fortunately, it also can work the other way as well, where a positive experience, perhaps making a new friend or learning some basic Chinese, can help push them forward toward the final goal of adjustment. 

Here are some helpful strategies for parents to assist kids who are experiencing culture shock:

  • Allow and encourage kids to have regular contact with family and friends back home.  Skype and other forms of social networking can be a tremendous aid in this.
  • Keep familiar things around that have sentimental value.
  • Encourage children to make friends, not only with other expats, but also with some locals.
  • Help kids find clubs, organizations, activities, or faith communities that can help them feel involved and connected.
  • Allow kids to express their feelings. Don’t try to talk them out of how they feel or minimize their emotions. Rather, just empathize and let them know that they are heard. Sometimes, professional counseling can be a tremendous support in this area.


They Said: “I hate Chinese food.”  Other common variations include, “I hate China,” and “I hate Chinese people.”

They Meant: I miss the comfort and familiarity of things back home.

They Said: “No one here gets me.  I don’t have any friends.”

They Meant: I miss my friends back home and it is hard to relate to people from such diverse backgrounds.

They Said: “School here is too hard.  I can’t do it.”

They Meant: It is hard to adjust to a different education system, structure, and style.

They Said: “All I want from Santa is a plane ticket back home.”

They Meant: I’m really homesick and am struggling with feeling connected to loved ones back home as well as finding meaning, purpose, and pleasure here.

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